Whenever I hear of a movie that bowled over audiences at the Sundance Film Festival,
I immediately go into my cynical mode. Over the last fifteen years, I've heard about films that
won acclaim and even prizes at the festival and then when they are released theatrically, I watch
and think, "it must be something about the mountain air, because this just doesn't cut it." Sure there
are the exceptions like a SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, but then there's also a HAPPY, TEXAS.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE was a hit at the 2004 Festival and in some ways it hearkens
back to the 1996 top prize winner WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (directed by Todd
Solondz). Both films center on high school outsiders from dysfunctional families, and both films have
an undercurrent of nastiness, although Jared Hess, the cowriter and director of NAPOLEON
DYNAMITE goes for a more conventional "happy" ending to temper some of the meanness.
From its quite creative opening credit sequence which uses food and condiments to spell out
the names of the actors and key production figures, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE begins on a high
note, and I was prepared to go along for the ride. Unfortunately, that creative peak isn't really met
by the rest of the movie.
The title character (perfectly embodied by newcomer Jon Heder) is a gangly youth with an
unruly mop of red curls, glasses, pursed lips and a sort of monotone delivery. He's a nerd, and if
the audience isn't completely certain of it, his wardrobe of kitschy t-shirts, hammer pants, and moon
boots clinches it.
Now, high school can be a lousy place for people who don't fit in, and someone with the
name of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE will be one of two things, either the class clown or the class
outsider. In the view of the filmmakers, he's the latter. Not quite at the bottom rung in the social
pecking order, but pretty close. Where the conflict arises, and indeed, some of the humor, is that
Napoleon doesn't realize this. His sense of ego is inflated a bit, and he reinforces his self-image by
spinning tall tales.
Napoleon lives in Preston, Idaho with his slacker older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who
seemingly spends all of his time in Internet chat rooms, and their grandmother (Sandy Martin) an
ATV-riding free spirit who ends up in the hospital after a nasty spill. Enter Uncle Rico (Jon Gries),
a vain man-child who attempts to recreate his high school football days in the 1980s. Rico is really
a charming con man who sells plastic food containers and breast enhancement creams to the locals
in a bid to earn quick cash. To Kip, he's an inspiration; to Napoleon, he's an embarrassment.
When Napoleon makes friends with another outsider, Pedro (Efren Ramerez), a recently arrived
Mexican immigrant with a deadpan delivery, things shift a bit. Pedro aims high: he decides to ask
Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school to the dance and isn't in the least flustered by
her refusal. He ends up with Deb (Tina Majorino), another oddball who works as a photographer
and sells tchotchkes door-to-door to raise money for college. The film reaches its climax after Pedro
has decided to run for class president against Summer. Suffice it to say that Napoleon plays a big part
in Pedro's campaign.
The script by director Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha Hess is a bit meandering and perhaps
focuses on some of the incidental characters a bit more than is necessary. Hess' direction is fluid, but
somewhat pedestrian; there are scenes that run a bit too long or camera placements that aren't quite
right. What salvages the movie, though, are the performances. Heder is so good as Napoleon, I fear
he may not be accepted in another role. Like Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman persona, it's hard to tell
where the actor ends and the character begins. The same goes for Aaron Ruell's Kip. Fine support is
offered by Efren Ramirez and Jon Gries as well as a grown-up Tina Majorino who makes a welcome
return to the screen after delivering strong performances as a child actor.
The film's themes have been tread and recycled heavily over the last couple of decades in
everything from the oeuvre of John Hughes (i.e., THE BREAKFAST CLUB and SIXTEEN
CANDLES) to HEATHERS to more recent fare like MEAN GIRLS. Even television has tackled
the subject of the high school years, sometimes with terrific but often short-lived results ("Square Pegs,"
"My So-Called Life," "Popular," and "Freaks and Geeks."). Unfortunately despite its cast's efforts,
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE just doesn't add anything new to the genre.
MPAA Rating: PG (for vulgarity)
Running time: 86 minutes
Viewed at the Clearview's Chelsea West.
|© 2005 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.